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Prisoners of War and Conscience

Updated: Feb 13

"The prison is situated on one of the highest places in

England & it either snows or rains the whole year round!"

HMP Dartmoor was due to close this year but has been given a reprieve. Owned by the Duchy of Cornwall (current incumbent, Prince William) it's merely leased by the Prison Service. A last minute stay of execution means Dartmoor Prison will now remain in use until 2048 at the earliest.

A notorious gaol with a long and storied history, it was opened in 1809 to house French POWs captured during the Napoleonic Wars. The British Establishment loving nothing more than a scrap with Johnny Foreigner, there was never a shortage of men to fill Dartmoor's cold, dark cells. When the French were allowed home, they were replaced by Americans from the War of 1812.

Around 6,500 Yankee sailors were imprisoned there. Life was hard on the moor and one prisoner, Perez Drinkwater, detailed the conditions in a letter he managed to smuggle home across the Atlantic.

"...we have but 1lb and a half of black bread and about 3 ounces of beef and a little beef tea to drink and all that makes us one meal a day...

.... we have plenty of creepers <fleas, lice and bed bugs> here to turn us out in the morning. Them and the Englishmen together don't let us have much peace!"

Opposite Dartmoor Prison is a large church, dedicated to St Michael and All Angels. Designed by the architect Daniel Asher Alexander, the man responsible for the gaol itself, it was built by the POW's. Such labour wasn't forced. Work was voluntary and rewarded with payment of sixpence per day.

Above the altar is a fine stained glass window by Franz Mayer of Munich. This was erected in 1908 and funded by a donation of £250 by an organisation called the National Society United States Daughters of 1812. This organisation was founded sixteen years earlier by the author Flora Adams Darling, whose own life and apocryphal claims were as colourful as anything she ever committed to paper.

In 1917, a building designed to incarcerate prisoners of war began holding those who refused to fight. Conscientious Objectors were housed here and pressed into work parties on the moor. These prisoners posing a threat to no one, they were allowed to wear their own clothes and mingle freely in the surrounding village of Princetown during their leisure time.

However, as we will see during the next blog piece, far more dangerous convicts sometimes enjoyed the same benefits themselves during the twentieth century...

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